Within the basic narrative structure -- beginning, middle and end -- writers have infinite options for storytelling. Especially in longer stories, writers frequently weave together different narrative strands, or parts of a plot -- for example, a romance in an action film. These strands work together to develop action, themes, perspective and characters.
Intersecting Plot Arcs
Some narratives have no dominant storyline, but rather multiple narrative strands interact with each other, sharing characters, action or themes. For example, Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which deals with issues of race in the 1930s South, has two plot arcs, each with a climax. One plot involves Atticus Finch’s legal defense of Tom Robinson, an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman; the climax comes when he loses the case. The other plot deals with the novel’s narrator, Atticus’s daughter Scout, and her changing view of their mysterious neighbor Boo Radley. The climax of that plot comes as the two narrative strands intersect: The father of the woman who accused Tom Robinson attacks Scout and her brother, but Boo Radley saves them by killing the man.
Some narratives have a “frame story” that surrounds the main story. The plots of the frame story and the dominant storyline are both strands in the complete narrative. These frames often feature an older character looking back on a younger self with a different perspective. For example, the 1997 movie “Titanic” begins when treasure hunters searching the sunken ship find a sketch of a nude woman wearing a diamond necklace, and an old woman claims that the drawing is of her. The majority of the movie -- the main narrative -- is a flashback to her experiences on the Titanic, and the movie ends with a return to the frame story.
Points of View
Many narratives, especially in Modernist literature, shift frequently among narrative perspectives; characters might each tell their version of the same events, or they might each tell a different portion of a story. Each of these perspectives forms a narrative strand. William Faulkner’s novel “As I Lay Dying” is a famous example of this narrative mode. Each chapter is narrated by one of 15 characters, most of them members of the Bundren family, who are reacting to Addie Bundren’s demise and burial.
Intercalary chapters are chapters that interrupt the main narrative and comment on it. In John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” nearly every other chapter is an intercalary chapter. The main narrative follows the Joad family’s struggles as they migrate out of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. The intercalary chapters give social and historical context to the Joad’s journey, aiming to show readers that if they sympathize with the Joads specifically, they must extend their concern to the many thousands of families who suffer as they do.